For most of my rabbinic life, and for that matter, my personal life, I’ve had the great luxury of not having to focus overmuch on anti-Semitism. And just to define our terms, anti-Semitism is simply another word for Jew-hatred—nothing more, or less. It has always been around, but it has been, for the most part, at least here in America, again in my lifetime, a fringe concern.
This is not to say I paid it no mind. Like many of us, I have experienced it. I have studied it. I have visited a number of Nazi death camps. I realize that the lessons it has to teach are both critical and numerous.
But to the best of my recollection, this is the first time I am devoting an entire High Holyday sermon to it. Because at the moment, anti-Semitism is not a fringe concern. It is not just a matter of history. It is here and it is now.
After the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall, the KJCC was filled, literally, as it had never been before. And the majority of the overflow crowd were outsiders, non-Jews, from our Upper Keys community. They were here in solidarity, saying with their presence that acts such as this are beyond any pale. That this is not how decent human beings, much less decent Christians, act. That crimes like this, of hatred and prejudice, are wrong, morally, and in every other way.
Tree of Life was not the first synagogue massacre in history. But it was the first in American history. And we were beyond grateful for the support from decent Americans who turned out for services like the one we held here, from coast to coast.
Did we exhale after Pittsburgh? Did we think, hope, even pray, that we would be one and done, and there would be nothing like it again?
Whatever we may have thought, hoped, or prayed, that didn’t happen. On the final day of Passover, in suburban San Diego, a nineteen-year-old college student, filled to overflowing with white supremacist hatred, charged into a shul with a military-style weapon and opened up. We considered ourselves lucky because there was “only” one dead. “Only” a few wounded.
But there was nothing “only” about it. It made clear beyond dispute that we were not “one and done.” That, like it or not, there was a new normal. That like it or not, the hate speech out there was finding receptive ears. And like it or not, we needed new security protocols. As our people in countries around the world have made use of for years.
The San Diego shooter claimed that he was acting “to save the European race from Jews.” And that he was willing to forfeit his life if it would help to preserve the “European race.” The El Paso shooter this summer, and most of the other American mass killers, have espoused a similar ideology. Yes, thank you internet. But mostly, thank you hatred.
Anti-Semitism may still be mostly on the American fringe but part of that fringe is now armed and dangerous. It is here and it is now. And we need to understand it. Not only because it is in the headlines; but because it has a lot to teach us—about our enemies, and about ourselves.
Let’s start with our enemies. They are on both ends of the political spectrum.
On the left, the good news, such as it is, is that in America at least, you have to go pretty far left to find them. Perhaps not as far as we once did, but still pretty far. In Europe and the Arab world, that is unfortunately not the case.
But here, on the left, anti-semitism shows up most prominently in the so-called BDS movement—those who want to “Boycott, Divest from, and Sanction,” Israel. BDS-ers claim that they want to put economic pressure on Israel so that Israel will treat the Palestinians more equitably.
That is an arguably legitimate goal. But it’s a false flag. Just ask a few sharp questions and it becomes clear that BDS leaders have no intention of accepting any Jewish State, with any policies, within any boundaries. And if you don’t care to take my word for it, feel free to look it up on any fact-based news site.
The BDS-ers also claim to be speaking for the benefit of “all the world’s oppressed and disenfranchised.” Very nice. But the only oppressor and disenfranchiser they manage to bring themselves to name is the State of Israel. They condemn Israel for its faults, real and imagined, without uttering a word about, I don’t know, Saudi Arabia, Congo, Hezbollah, Hamas, to say nothing of Russia and China, to say nothing of scores of others we could mention—any of whom, in any fair rendering, Israel, for all its faults, puts to shame. When the only human rights you advocate for are the rights of people who just happen to be under the flag of the Jewish state, forgive me for thinking that something besides justice is at issue.
This is without question true for the BDS leaders. It may not be true for some of their more unwitting followers but, I’m sorry, the stakes are too high to give anyone a pass.
On the right, it looks worse. The white supremacist movement, again, with most of the blood from America’s mass shootings on its hands, is intensely anti-Jewish. To their way of thinking, Jews are one of the “other races” that they believe is intent on replacing them, the “real whites.”
Right wing anti-semitism has also gone global. It meshes with the ethnic, cultural, and social grievances that many whites around the world blame on “outsiders.” You know, minorities, people who look different, believe different, think different, eat different, dress different. They see themselves as under siege, and worse, they see Jews not only as immigrants, but as people who support immigrants. The Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty and all that.
And, it must be said, on the right and on the left, anti-semites are abetted by “leaders,” who are willing to ride the wave of xenophobia for as long as they think it will win them political points, and who not only sound dog-whistles, but train whistles; and who, if they condemn violent anti-semitic beliefs and tactics at all, do it with a wink and a nod that is not lost on anyone who is looking for it. We know we’re in pretty deep, and well past the point of critical concern, when a democratically elected leader will not unequivocally condemn acts of domestic violence and terrorism. And the list of those who haven’t, won’t, and don’t, is far too lengthy.
Ken Stern is the director of the Bard College Center for the Study of Hate. He has written: “Anti-semitism is best combatted by democratic institutions. But now THEY are under attack...When leaders around the world attack democratic institutions such as the press, the judiciary, legislatures, and others, whenever it suits their purposes, they are weakening society’s best defense against anti-Semitism and other hatreds.” In other words, abetting anti-Semitism puts democracy itself in jeopardy.
Stern continues: “Human beings have always had a capacity to hate, and to dehumanize the other... Neuroscience shows that we are wired for ‘us vs. them.’” Evolutionary and social psychology show the same thing. Once we form a group identity, we do our best to promote our own group while we denigrate those who are outside of it. Anyone who was ever part of a sports rivalry, or even a color war team, understands this. But sports and color war teams play within enforced rules. Haters make their own.
One of the reasons we find this so distressing is that so many of us maintain a belief in the power of rational thought. But hatred is not about rational thought. And hatred cannot be countered by rational thought. Hatred lives in the lizard brain. And it thrives when us vs. them binary thinking moves in.
And it holds on tight. I want to share a Holocaust story I recently heard for the first time. After the US Army liberated the concentration camps in Germany, American filmmakers went in to record the horror that the Nazis had left in their wake. This we know. We’ve all seen the pictures. Actually we’ve seen just a few of them because most of them were considered too gruesome for public viewing. Imagine.
At any rate, what I didn’t know, was that at that same time, the filmmakers, on Army orders, rounded up German civilians who lived in nearby towns and villages, brought them to the newly liberated camps, and filmed them.
Some of the people did, in fact, drop their jaws and cover their eyes. Others didn’t. They set their jaws, pursed their lips, stared straight ahead, and refused to acknowledge what was in front of them. Instead, they did everything in their power to deny what they were seeing—and what they had done. The Prophet Jeremiah identified the phenomenon 2500 years ago, “They have eyes but see not, and have ears but hear not.” (Jer. 5:21)
It’s incredible, is it not, that even in the presence of in-your-face evidence, in the presence of truth that overwhelms every human sense, some people, more than just a few, will look for, and find, a way to pretend it isn’t so. The moral of the story, friends, sadly, is that hatred, once it takes root, is not necessarily susceptible to evidence or truth, much less reason.
I wonder, maybe if those people had a High Holiday ritual like ours: We have done wrong, we have sinned, we ask forgiveness. But, frankly, I doubt that would have helped. The cure for hatred is not reason and it is not ritual. It is love. And it is no coincidence that so many of the violent ones today are young men with no love life to speak of.
At any rate, what is our response to all this?
Some Jews are actually going out and supporting right-wing organizations, movements, and parties. Perhaps because they see themselves as members of one of the ethnic-cultural groups that is under siege. By Muslims, by blacks, by browns, by yellows, by who knows? If that’s the case, the thinking goes, we might as well link up with those who want to keep the rest of the outsiders out. Of course, they might just be haters, too.
But whatever the reason, history is pretty clear. Ethnically based political movements have never, I repeat, never, ended well for Jews. Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs warned last year: Far right groups present the greatest threat to the Jews of the US and Europe.
Happily, Jewish identity is not only based on ethnicity. Jewish teachings and moral values take us out of the binary, “us vs. them” world. And it this part of our identity that has enabled us to overcome the hate, in many lands, for many ages.
Jewish values teach us, among other things, to stand for tikkun olam—for repairing the world, not for tearing it apart; to aspire to be an or-la’goyim—a light unto the nations, not a part of whatever rabble is being roused; and we are taught to love, not hate, our neighbors as ourselves. Interestingly enough, the world, when it is in an honest and generous mood, actually credits us for being the source of those values. It is a good way to be known. It is a better way to live.
At the end of the day, we need to find a way to be both tribal and ethical.
If our tribe does not defend itself, and does not survive, there is not much point in the rest of it. At the same time, if we are only a tribe, we have missed most, if not all, of the point of Jewish faith, Jewish history, and Jewish life.
Our existence as a people, since Abraham and Sarah, is predicated on the fact that we are more than just another people; we have a higher calling. We are challenged to be an exemplary people, covenanted to God. And those aspirations have served us well.
For openers, we gave the world the Bible. And as we all know, we are ridiculously overrepresented in the ranks of scientists, discoverers, teachers, artists, musicians, performers, writers, philanthropists, physicians, barristers, financiers, business leaders, and fighters for social justice—to say nothing of Nobel Prize winners. Over 20% of the Nobel Prizes have been awarded to members of a people that is less than 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population. Inconceivable, maybe, but true, absolutely! We dare not give up the essence of what makes us who and what we are. The world has more than enough tribes. It does not have nearly enough exemplary people.
Bret Stephens, in an otherwise glowing review of Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, Anti-Semitism–Here and Now, writes that “Lipstadt misses something important by insisting that anti-Semitism “has never made sense and never will.”
“Not quite,” he says. “However irrational, cynical or stupid anti-Semites may be, most Jews nonetheless can be said to stand for certain ideas and attitudes: a particular concept of morality; a reverence for law founded on the idea of truth; a penchant for asking nettlesome questions; skepticism toward would-be saviors; a liberal passion for freedom.
Anti-Semites tend to have the opposite set of views, for reasons that may be repugnant but are perfectly rational. The fundamental truth about anti-Semitism isn’t that it’s necessarily crazy. It’s that it is inevitably brutish.”
Friends, in this very new year, we will continue to face this very old challenge. Throughout our history, somehow, we have managed to rise to it. We will find a way to do so again. In the words of contemporary author, Tobias Wolff: “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.”
I’ll conclude with excerpts from a well-known poem by a Frenchman, Edmund Fleg. He wrote it in the 1920’s. It is called, “I Am a Jew.”
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; we are completing it.
I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places humanity and the Divine Unity.
October 8, 2019 | 10 Tishrei, 5780
This High Holydays, so far, we’ve been looking outwards as well as inwards. As we should be. The country, and the world, are going through an unsteady period. Not 1930’s or 1940’s unsteady, but unsteady enough. Governments, ours as well as others, and the overall quality of public conversation, have been getting uglier and shallower. No one is claiming that this is democracy’s finest hour. And all of this is critical, to us as Americans, as inhabitants of the planet, and as Jews.
Last week we looked at anti-Semitism and how part of our response to it should be for us to be “exemplary.” Tonight and tomorrow we’ll look at the state of our Democracy and the Role of Faith in society. And what we might be doing to respond to and improve them.
As Jews we have a major stake in a healthy democracy. One in which advancement is based on merit, one in which justice is fairly administered, one in which the truth is honored and respected. We ample historical experience living in societies where these principles were honored in the breach, if at all. And it never worked well for us.
One of the reasons we love America, for all its faults, is that merit, truth, and justice are not only honored in principle, they are also implemented—to a reasonable, if not perfect, degree. And we all have a stake in keeping this part of the American dream alive, and secure.
This is true for moral as well as a utilitarian reasons. Moral, because our system has been more successful at doing the greatest good for the greatest number than any other, ever. Accordingly, to preserve it and improve it is a moral imperative—a mitzvah, if you will. The utilitarian argument is also simple. When societies stop working for others who are hard working and decent, sooner or later, usually sooner, they stop working for us, too.
We are all aware that American democracy is stressed. And it is not the only one in the world that is. In Europe, in South America, in the Near East, the Far East, freedom and democracy, truth, justice, and merit, are being challenged by authoritarian, and quasi-authoritarian, movements and leaders who care little for those values. (By no coincidence, these same places are witnessing rises in anti-Semitism.) This is not the first time democracy has faced this challenge—but it is the first time we have faced this particular set of weapons.
Democracy is now as much under fire from technology, social media, and from the mass disinformation that courses through them, as it is from military power. Quick poll: show of hands if you are comfortable. How many people here use Facebook? I know that Facebook enhances many people’s lives. But, to cite just one example, in 2016, an estimated 10 million FB users saw a story claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed one of the two major candidates for President of the United States. It was the most shared story on that platform in the three months prior to the election. (Politico Magazine, Rick Shenkman, 9/8/19) The only problem was that the Pope had done no such thing. It was fake news. Actual fake news, news that was fake. Not news that was real that someone didn’t want to hear. Legitimate fraud.
The Founding Fathers understood that a well-informed populace was essential to a properly functioning Republic. Today, there’s no pretending that too many of us are either under-informed, misinformed, or dis-informed and it effects the ways our democracy functions—and doesn’t.
Since I’m a rabbi, what I say about this situation publicly should to be grounded in Jewish tradition. Fortunately, that’s easy enough to do.
We Jews have been around for a long time and we have long experience with leaders, our own, and others. Our first leaders were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They were tribal leaders, clan leaders, not really national leaders; but they dealt with neighboring national leaders: warlords, kings, and pharaohs. The Torah variously portrays our Patriarchs’ adversaries as power-driven, obtuse, cruel, ego-maniacal—in various combinations. The Bible uses them as examples, not only as what we have often had to deal with, but also as examples of simple bad leadership.
Moses was our first national leader. According to tradition, he freed us from slavery and wrote down the Torah. Enough to put him on anyone’s Mt. Rushmore. But even for Moses, leading the Israelites through the wilderness was more than he could handle alone.
His father in-law, Jethro, advised him to delegate. Find, he told him, “capable men, who revere God, who are truthful, and incorruptible. And have them assist you.” Sounds like good advice. According to the Torah, Moses “did all that his father in-law told him and chose capable men from all Israel.” (Exodus 18:21–25)
Oops. Did you catch that? Jethro tells Moses to look for people who were “capable, reverent, truthful, and honest”—for people with four specific qualities. And then the Torah says, “Moses did all that his father-in-law told him and chose capable men from all Israel.” Wait a second! “Capable” is only one quality. What happened to the other three, to “reverent, truthful, and honest”?!
What indeed? This is one of the things that makes Torah fun (yes, the Torah can be fun). Well, we can surmise that even from a potential applicant pool of six hundred thousand, Moses was unable to find people with each of Jethro's four virtues. Wow! It seems that finding qualified leaders, even then, was easier said than done.
Later on, Moses gave commandments concerning the future kings of Israel. This time, instead of naming positive qualities the people should look for, he spells out what kings may not do. The king may not multiply horses (i.e., spend too much on the war budget), amass too much silver and gold (through excessive taxation) or accumulate too many women—who will distract him from higher duties.
Each of those “thou shalt nots” plays into Kings’ natural proclivity to put himself above anything and everyone else. For a Jewish king, or for that matter, any decent king or queen, God, and Higher Law, need to be first and foremost.
But that, too, was easier said than done. In biblical Israel, most of the kings, and queens, were deeply flawed, including the most famous ones, David and Solomon. In fact, scholars generally consider Moses’ laws for kings to be a later text written in reaction to their excesses—Solomon’s in particular.
Be that as it may, if a King of Israel cannot make stockpiles for war, increase taxes, or have a proper harem, what is he supposed to do? According to Moses, he is to write for himself a copy of the Torah, keep it next to him on the throne, and learn from it all of his days (Deuteronomy 17:16–19)
Unfortunately, not even that helped, at least not enough. After Solomon’s excesses, the country split in two. The ten tribes of the northern kingdom were eventually conquered, and lost. Soon thereafter, the southern kingdom collapsed, the Temple was destroyed, and the leaders were sent into Exile.
When they eventually returned years later, the Jews were led by varying combinations of priests, rabbis, and vassals, who were most often subservient to one foreign authority or another. This system didn’t work especially well either. The vassals and priests were often corrupt, imagine that. The Rabbis, as far as we know, were not. But then again, they were the ones who wrote the books so it might be hard to tell. But even if they were honest, they could, and did, make mistakes.
In the second century, the great Rabbi Akiva supported a rebellion against Rome, going so far as to proclaim its leader, Shimon Bar Kochba, the Messiah. The rebellion failed and with it, Jewish sovereignty did not return for almost two thousand years, until the birth of the State of Israel in 1948.
Modern Israel does not take its leadership and governing model from the Bible or Talmud. Knowing the history we’ve just reviewed, who can blame them? Instead, they established a parliamentary democracy.
The State of Israel is one of the world’s great success stories but no one would claim they’ve figured out a great way to govern. And they, too, have made their share of mistakes.
So it seems that our sacred scriptures, for all of their success in teaching us how to be better human beings, fall short when it comes to teaching our rulers how to lead better. Though we shouldn’t feel especially bad about this because no other nation seems to have figured it out either.
One of the things that’s so frustrating is that I suspect many of us know people who fit the criteria that Moses looked for, people who are “capable, reverent, truthful, and incorruptible.” But to get even one of them to put him or herself through the indignities of running for office is no easy task. So where does that leave us? It leaves us where we are. As frustrating as that may be, one thing is for certain: we cannot give up.
Once upon a time, a skeptic asked a Rabbi, “With all of the violence, hatred, and dishonesty in the world, how you can still be a believer?”
The Rabbi responds by saying, “I know that faith and belief are indeed difficult. But what I don’t believe in is soap.” “Rabbi, what are you talking about? You keep yourself well-groomed. How can you say that you don’t believe in soap?” “Well, it’s easy. Look at all the filthy, dirty people in the world. With all of that schmutz around, how can anyone say that they believe in soap?” “Rabbi, respectfully, for soap to work, it has to be used! Those people you are talking about don’t use it.” “Exactly so! And the same goes for the teachings of the Torah. If they are going to have any effect, they need to be used.”
I like that story a lot. But as good as it may be, it is not enough. We can’t just say, “use more Torah” like “use more soap.” We can’t just say, “Choose leaders who are ‘capable, reverent, truthful, and incorruptible.’” We don’t seem able to do either one. So where to turn?
It is a recognized truth that governments, all governments, derive their legitimacy, and power, from the consent of the governed. No leader can rule without it. Not for very long and certainly not very well. And it is in this truth that we may find our response to malfeasance, incompetence, evil, and the rest of democracy’s present ills. It is a similar to the response we proposed to anti-Semitism.
Namely, it is our obligation, even our sacred obligation, to be the best Jews we can be. If we don’t have leaders who are moral, upright, honest and intent on serving the Highest—and I’m not saying we do or we don’t—we need to embrace those qualities.
We need to be the ones who Moses looked for: the ones who are capable, which in this context let’s say means well-informed—not mis-informed or dis-informed. We need to be the ones who are reverent—which is to say, loyal to higher values and principles—not lesser ones. We need to be truthful and incorruptible— which should be understandable enough. Because if that is the people who we are, our leaders will ultimately have to manifest those same qualities.
I understand that may sound a trifle idealistic. But before you dismiss it, listen to one more story.
As we know, the Jews of the former Soviet Union were, for many years, terribly oppressed. To a degree well beyond any anti-Semitism we’ve experienced in this country. To a degree far beyond their non-Jewish neighbors—who were obviously oppressed, too. Yet, against all odds, against any reasonable expectation or hope, they played a critical role in bringing that empire down. They did it by being the Jews the Torah commanded them to be. They demanded truth and justice—in a regime that had little regard for either. They lived with reverence for humanity’s, and the Torah’s, highest eternal teachings. They were capable, reverent, truthful, and incorruptible.
It did not happen easily, or quickly. Along the way, many of them lost their jobs, were ostracized, imprisoned, and worse. But they never stopped believing, through it all, that their faith carried the best possible response to the unfairness, the injustice, and even the tyranny. Theirs was a message of universal moral force. It not only won them their freedom, it helped bring down the world’s second-largest superpower.
Let’s think of that kind of courage, and the actions that stemmed from it, as a shofar call, to us. Sounding the message that God’s truths not only matter, they have power. In our own time we’ve seen them bring down walls, as they did once-upon-a-time for Joshua at Jericho.
Friends, the task for us this year, and every year, in this land and in every land, is to ground ourselves, as deeply as we possibly can, in the eternal values of Jewish tradition. The ones that say all human life is sacred, that Truth is sacred, that fighting for Justice is sacred, and that loyalty to the Highest principles we know is the best possible path on which any of us can walk.
Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010. Before dying of cancer in Chinese state captivity, he said, “Although people must still deal with tyranny and the suffering that it causes, they can respond to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to degradation with dignity and to violence with reason.” (NYTBR 6/30/19 End of review of Democracy in Crisis by Larry Diamond.)
Or, as our own prayerbook puts it, “Emet Malkeinu, efes zulato—Truth is our King, there is nothing else.” Our people has been working on this for a very long time. With some very real success. This is the heritage, as much as anything else, that has defined who we are and what we have meant to the world.
Standing up for what is right is rarely the easiest path. It does not always work on the first go around—or even the second, or even the tenth. But it remains the best path for us. This year, this generation; every year, every generation.
G’mar tov and shana tovah.
October 9, 2019 | 10 Tishrei, 5780
On the Role of Faith
So, during these High Holydays, we’ve looked at the state of Anti-Semitism and the state of Democracy. Neither is quite what we would wish. But we resolved that greater application of Jewish values and principles have the power to improve them.
Today, we’ll focus on the Role of Faith. Both what it means in society, and what it means to us as individuals. Let’s begin.
Why do we need Faith in the first place? That is actually something of an eternal question. And an especially appropriate one for Yom Kippur.
The short answer is that at some point we all want, even need, existential meaning and grounding in our lives. Many of us search for it. Some of us find it.
There are many reasons we do this but the main one, not to put too fine a point on it, is that sooner or later we recognize that life is short. And if we don’t want to wake up one day and regret having wasted the only life we know we are getting for sure, we need this life to mean something. And this leads to the questions that Yom Kippur poses. We can find them running through the length and breadth of the Machzor: What should I be doing here? How do I make my life worthwhile? What really matters?
On this, our day of judgment, those questions are not just floating around in the ether, they are front and center.
Lots of people, places, and things clamor for our attention and claim that they will give our lives meaning in return. A teacher of mine even used to critique the Theology of Television Commercials. And he was on to something. In thirty-seconds, a typical commercial will present a crisis, offer deliverance, and celebrate redemption. That’s serious ground for half a minute.
We’ve all seen it in action. Crisis: You have bad hair! Deliverance: use this shampoo. Redemption: You look beautiful—and you’re even keeping more beautiful company. Go no.
At some point, of course, most of us realize that a meaningful life requires more than the right shampoo. Or toothpaste, or car, or phone plan, or medication, or whatever else it is they are trying to sell us. So we look further.
Some of us turn to the Arts and Music, or Science and Technology. Each of them is pretty powerful, and each of them has the power to elevate our lives—usually more than the right shampoo. Arts, Music, Science, and Technology, at their best, can fill us with awe, wonder, and beauty.
But they may not be quite enough to get us a life of meaning. The book of Proverbs says that awe is the beginning of wisdom. (Prov. 9:10) As in, not the final goal. As Maimonides might have put it, awe, wonder and beauty can take us to the entrance of the Palace, but they don't get us inside.
Moreover, Arts, Music, Science, and Technology, for all their greatness, are amoral. They can be put to higher or lower purposes, depending on how we use them. So yes we love them, for lots of good reasons. But if we want our lives to be grounded in meaning, we need more.
Some people look for that “more” in Politics. But we also have a way of expecting more from Politics than it is accustomed to giving us. As we’ve noted during these High Holydays, it is difficult enough for politics to create an equitable and just society—which is its primary obligation. And we know how easily it can deteriorate into divisiveness and even hatred. Politics is essential in life. But to expect it to guide us to morals, ethics, and meaning is more than a bit utopian.
People sometimes look for meaning in material comforts, and by pursuing wealth. There is absolutely nothing better than wealth for fulfilling our creaturely wants and needs. But even when we have all the stuff we’ve ever wanted, it does not bring happiness, much less meaning. Remember that slogan from the ’80’s: the one who dies with the most toys wins? Yeah, that's not how it works at all.
What about Reason? Does that give us a life of meaning? We certainly can’t get far without it but Reason is also amoral. It can be used for good or for evil and it can also be convoluted to the point of insanity. My favorite poster child for this is Groucho Marx, of blessed memory. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” That is a carefully reasoned statement. But it’s crazy. Funny, maybe, but nuts. People find ways to twist logic into lunacy all the time. Feel free to choose your own example.
Most of us also believe, to a considerable degree, in Progress. We are grateful to it for everything from modern medicine to smartphones. But Progress is also a two-edged sword. Sometimes those smartphones control us more than the other way around. To say nothing of micro-plastics in the food chain. To say nothing of exploitation and inequality of opportunity. To say nothing of much more we could name. If we are serious about solving our human predicament, we should not be making too much of an idol out of progress.
Healthy eating and living? Sure. But like everything else we’ve mentioned, eating right, sleeping right, and exercising don’t really answer Yom Kippur’s questions.
What should I be doing here? How do I make my life worthwhile? What really matters?
Vasily Grossman was a twentieth-century Russian-Jewish writer. He lived most of his life under Soviet rule, and most of that under Stalin. His most famous novel, Life and Fate, was, among other things, a major act of chutzpah. Because in it, he described a number of the regime’s blunders during the Second World War. That he wasn’t executed for it, or at the very least sent to Siberia, was something of a miracle. The book, however, was suppressed for several decades and only released in 1988, twenty-four years after Grossman’s death.
One of the other amazing things about it was that Grossman seemed to believe, or at least hope, that the book’s argument for a more humane and humanistic society would somehow lead the Soviet rulers to behave more in that way. We are well aware, as was he, that human rights were not especially high on their list of values. Assessing the book in a recent retrospective, a reviewer noted, “In a regime that demanded black and white thinking, Grossman argued for ‘the irreducible complexity of the individual human.’” (Nadia Kalman, Jewish Review of Books, Summer, 2019)
Let’s linger on that phrase: “the irreducible complexity of the individual human.” Can we adopt that as part of the foundation of our response to Yom Kippur’s questions? We can, and should. Each of us is irreducibly complex. And each of us is irreducibly complex in our own way.
Our Rabbis understood this—and it was a major part of their spiritual foundation as well. In a midrash, they taught that when a king of flesh and blood strikes a coin, he puts a face on “his creation,” and each one is identical to the next. But when the King of Kings, God, puts a face on her creations, each one is unique. In other words, no two of us are the same, and we are commanded to treat one another with this in mind.
That midrash also highlights the difference between rulers on earth and the One in heaven. To earthly kings and queens, we are part of a multitude. We are valued to the extent we support their regime and pay our taxes. But in God’s eyes, each of us is holy, no matter what.
Admittedly, it is not always easy, or even best, to look at one another in such a light. On the street, for example, we need to distinguish between someone who looks safe and someone who may not. If we run a business, there are serious customers and those who are just looking. In life, we meet people who are wonderful and people who are, as the immortal Yiddish word has it, nudniks.
But when we live with the awareness that there is an irreducible complexity to our humanity, we are already functioning on a higher plane. And when we do, when we treat people as individuals created in God’s image, we are grounding our lives in what really matters.
If a person is poor, sick, or foreign, i.e., a “stranger,” as the Torah calls it; if a person is religiously, ethnically, racially, physically, or sexually different than we are, they are entitled to every bit as much respect and dignity as we insist upon for ourselves. That may sound simple, but far too many of us don’t appreciate it.
That midrash also gives us one of our faith’s most sublime teachings: as God’s Children, we are all royalty.
It’s true. We don’t need to go gaga over Prince this or Princess that. Because each of us is as much a child of the Most High as they are. In Hebrew we say we are all B’nai Adam, descended from Adam, and Eve, God’s first children. No matter where we were born, no matter who we were born to, we are no less divine than any other human being. And conversely, no other human being is any more, or less, royal and divine than we are.
During these days when earthly kings often take God’s irreducibly complex human creations and caricature us wholesale, this is not just a nice-sounding teaching. It is a teaching to which we need to hold fast.
All this leads to what Rabbi Akiva called the Torah’s greatest principle: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When we do, it responds to all of Yom Kippur’s questions. Because more than any other quality, love speaks from, and to, the deepest part of our humanity. The more healthy love there is in our lives, the more meaningful our existence will be.
A final story. I was in New York last spring and had occasion to travel on the subway. I lived in the city for many years and a subway ride is nothing new for me. But I hadn't taken one in a while.
It’s hard to be on the subway without thinking about people, specifically the people who are on the train with you. I mean, who can help but wonder, Who are they? Where are they going? Where are they from? What are they doing? Who's in the home they came from—or are going to? Are they happy? Are they struggling? Will they make it?
Given our cultural norms, there’s really no way to ask these questions, much less get answers to them, so I started pondering different ones. What do all of these people, all of us, have in common? All of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial people; people of different ages, different religions, different orientations? What do we all share, beyond our biological classification as homo sapiens?
As it happens, quite a lot. We all harbor hopes and dreams. We all want a better life—however we define it. We all want meaning and fulfillment—however we define that. We all want health. We all want love. We all have to work for it.
Even in these divisive and contentious times, in point of fact, especially in these divisive and contentious times, just contemplating exactly what we all share, can be powerful, and meaningful.
So let’s review Yom Kippur’s questions once more. This time with responses.
What should I be doing here? Honoring every fellow human being as a child of the Most High.
How do I make my life worthwhile? By loving our fellow creatures as we love ourselves.
What really matters? The ability to recognize and respect our irreducibly individual complexity.
I pray that these teachings will help guide all of us to lives of purpose, meaning, and worth in the year ahead, and in the years beyond.
G’mar tov, l’shana tovah.